While other women inherited a knack for singing or swearing from their grandmothers, Riley Rhodes received a faded leather journal, a few adolescent summers of field training, and the guarantee that she'd die alone.
Okay, fine, maybe that last thing was a slight exaggeration. But a unique talent for vanquishing the occult, passed down from one generation to the next like heirloom china, certainly didn't make dating any easier. Her matrilineal line's track record for lasting love was . . . bleak, to say the least.
Curse breaking-the Rhodes family talent-was a mysterious and often misunderstood practice, especially in the modern age. Lack of demand wasn't the problem. If anything, the world was more cursed than ever. But as the presence of an angry mob in any good folktale will tell you, people fear what they don't understand.
To be fair, Gran had warned Riley about the inherent hazards of curse breaking out of the gate. There was, of course, the whole physical danger aspect that came part and parcel with facing off against the supernatural. Riley had experienced everything from singed fingertips to the occasional accidental poisoning in the name of her calling.
As for the personal pitfalls? Well, those hurt in a different way.
She'd grown up practicing chants at recess and trying to trade homemade tonics for Twinkies at lunch. Was it any wonder that, through middle school, her only friend had been a kindly art teacher in her late fifties? It wasn't until tenth grade when her tits came in that guys decided "freaky curse girl" was suddenly code for "performs pagan sex rituals." Riley had been almost popular for a week-until that rumor withered on the vine.
It was like Gran always said: No one appreciates a curse breaker until they're cursed.
Since she couldn't be adored for her talents, Riley figured she could at least get paid. So, at thirty-one years old, she'd vowed to be the first to turn the family hobby into a legitimate business.
Still, no one would call her practical. She'd flown thousands of miles to a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands to risk life and limb facing down an ancient and unknowable power-but hey, at least she'd gotten fifty percent up front.
Hours after landing, strung out on jet lag and new-job nerves, Riley decided the village's single pub was as good a place as any to start her investigation into the infamous curse on Arden Castle.
The Hare's Heart had a decent crowd for a Sunday night, considering the total population of the village didn't break two hundred. Dark wood-paneled walls and a low ceiling covered in crimson wallpaper gave the already small space an extra intimate feel. More like an elderly family member's living room than the slick, open-concept spots filled with almost as many screens as people that Riley knew all too well back home.
Hopefully after this job put her services on the map she could stop picking up bartending shifts in Fishtown during lean months. For now, her business was still finding its feet. The meager income she managed to bring in from curse breaking remained firmly in the "side hustle" category-though it was still more than anyone else in her family had ever made from their highly specialized skills. Riley had always thought it was kind of funny, in a morbid way, that a family of curse breakers could help everyone but themselves.
Whether out of fear or a sense of self-preservation, Gran had never charged for her practice. In fact, she'd kept curse breaking a secret her whole life, serving only her tiny rural mountain community. As a consequence, she'd never had two nickels to rub together. She and Riley's mom had weathered a few rough winters without heat, going to bed on lean nights-if not hungry, then certainly not full.
Riley had never faulted her mom for ditching Appalachia and the family mantle in favor of getting her nursing degree in scenic South Jersey. It was only because she'd never been good at anything practical that Riley found herself here in the Highlands, hoping this contract changed more than the number in her bank account.
If word got out that Riley had taken down the notorious curse on Arden Castle, she could go from serving small-time personal clients to big corporate or even government jobs. (She had it on good authority they'd been looking for someone to remove the curse on Area 51 since the seventies).
Perching herself on a faded leather stool at the mahogany bar that divided the pub into two sections, Riley had an excellent vantage point to observe the locals. Up front in the dining room, patrons ranging in age from two to eighty occupied various farm tables brimming with frothing pints and steaming plates.
Her stomach growled as the scent of melting butter and roasted meat wafted across the room. After ordering a drink, she'd ask for a menu. As much as Riley didn't mind charging into battle against mystical mysteries, she was terrified of plane food, so she hadn't eaten much in the last sixteen hours.
Next to her, a middle-aged man with face-paint-streaked cheeks bellied up to the bar to speak to the hot older woman pulling pints.
"Eilean, come and sit with us." He thumbed at the more casual area in the back of the pub.
Over her shoulder, Riley followed his direction to a cluster of rowdier guests on the edge of their seats in a haphazard cluster of well-loved armchairs. They all had their necks bent at uncomfortable angles to watch a small, shitty-looking TV hanging from the wall.
"We need you. The game's tied and you're good luck."
The bartender-Eilean-waved him off. "Even if that were true, I wouldn't waste it on you lot and that piss-poor excuse for a rugby club."
She smiled at Riley when he turned tail back to his buddies, but her eyes held the kind of guarded interest reserved for interlopers at a place that served almost exclusively regulars. "Can I get you something?"
Without hesitating, Riley ordered an aged local scotch on the rocks, hoping the quick, simple order would convey that she came in peace.
While she waited, the face-painted man and several of his buddies took turns heckling the sports teams onscreen, their impassioned shouts cutting above the dining room's steady din of conversation.
Riley smiled to herself at the colorful insults delivered in their thick Scottish brogues. A similar disorderly air erupted in her mother's living room every time neighbors and friends gathered to get their hearts broken by the Eagles. Even though she'd never traveled abroad before, suddenly Riley felt a little more at home.
"You've got good taste in scotch." Eilean placed the highball glass of amber liquid in front of her. "For an American," she said, warm, teasing.
Apparently, in a village this small, even a few words in her accent stood out. Riley raised her glass in acknowledgment before taking a sip.
She savored the sharp, smoky flavor of the smooth liquor, a subtle hint of spice lingering on her lips after she swallowed. Good whiskey tasted like indulging in bad decisions-that same satisfying burn. This job might kill her, but so close to Islay, at least she could enjoy single malt without paying shipping markup or import tax.
"I'd ask what brings you all the way out here," the silver-haired bartender said, "but there's really only one reason strangers come to Torridon." Almost imperceptibly, her gaze strayed to a couple tucked in at a corner table wearing a pair of what looked like homemade novelty T-shirts reading Curse Chasers.
Riley winced. Reminders that her real life was someone else's sideshow circus could make a girl feel cheap, if she let them.
Accustomed to using people's drink order as a bellwether for their character, out of habit, her eyes fell to check what they were drinking. Riley groaned.
"Not mojitos." Far and away the most tedious cocktail to prepare. She revised her previous analysis of their threat level. To make matters worse, their table held the remnants of several rounds.
"All that muddling." She rubbed phantom pain from her wrist.
Eilean barked out a laugh. "You've spent some time behind a bar, then?"
"More than I'd care to admit."
They shared a commiserating sigh.
"Do you get a lot of gawkers?"
"Not enough," Eilean pursed her lips. "The Loch Ness monster is obviously a big draw for bringing supernatural enthusiasts to the Highlands, but unfortunately for us, the curse on Arden Castle scares off more tourists than it brings in." She grabbed a rag to wipe down the bar where a bit of beer had splashed. "The latest landlords have promised to make a big investment in turning the castle into a vacation destination that will 'revitalize the whole village,' but we've heard that promise enough that we try not to get our hopes up anymore."
"Maybe these guys will surprise you." Riley pulled a card out of her wallet and extended it to Eilean. No one really used business cards anymore. Even though she'd gotten them on sale, they'd been an irresponsible purchase. But they added an air of legitimacy that her unconventional offering still required.
"At the very least, they hired me." Based on what Riley could tell from their website, her new employer, Cornerstone Investments, was a land developer based in London. The latest in a long list of investors both public and private who had inked their name on Arden's deed, they were a relatively young company with eager, if green, staff.
"A curse breaker?" Eilean arched a finely crafted auburn eyebrow. "No wonder that weedy project manager looked right pleased with himself last time he came in here."
Considering how frazzled and desperate he'd been when they spoke on the phone a week ago, Riley took that as a vote of confidence in her abilities.
"Still." As Eilean handed back the card, her voice took on a new note of gravity. "Arden Castle is no place for the faint of heart."
Riley's ears perked up at the first hint of a lead.
"You believe in the curse, then?" Not always a guarantee, even among locals.
"Oh, aye"-Eilean laughed humorlessly-"and anyone who thinks I've had a choice in the matter hasn't been here long. I've seen enough people broken by that curse over the course of my lifetime to know that land doesn't want to be owned and the curse ensures it won't."
When a guest at the other end of the bar held up two fingers, the bartender nodded and began pulling a pair of fresh pints while simultaneously finishing her warning. "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into."
"I'm a professional," Riley assured her firmly as she slipped the card back into the pocket of her jeans. Part of the gig was projecting confidence in the face of the unknown. Gumption, as Gran called it, was an essential trait for curse breakers. "But the more I can learn about the curse, and quickly," she said with a meaningful head tilt, "the better my odds."
The little time she'd had to research in the short period between receiving the assignment and arriving in Scotland had left her with more questions than answers. Arden Castle didn't attract the same obsessive analysis and "eyewitness account" forum fodder as other Highland supernatural stories. A cursory Internet search hadn't turned up many hits.
Maybe it was like Eilean said, that the close proximity of Loch Ness, or even the standing stones at Clava Cairns, simply drew interest. Or maybe it was because castles, cursed or not, were a dime a dozen in the UK. Whatever the reason, Riley knew she would have to tap into the firsthand experiences and folklore of locals like Eilean-people who had grown up in the castle's backyard-to get this job done.
"Very well." Eilean's mouth pulled to the side. "I suppose it's better you hear from me than the sensationalized tales of these hooligans." She raised her chin toward the armchair crowd from earlier.
Riley eagerly pulled out a pocket notebook and pen from her purse. "Start at the beginning, please."
It was curse breaking 101: pin down the origin.
In their most basic form, curses were uncontrollable energy. And power stabilized when you completed a circuit back to the source. Riley's first task was always uncovering specific details: who, when, why, and how.
"Now, I'm not a historian, mind you." Eilean popped open a jar of olives and began to spear them in pairs while she spoke. "But based on what I've always heard, the curse started roughly three hundred years ago."
Riley leaned forward. An origin date somewhere in the eighteenth century was a broad window, but it gave her something to start with in terms of timeline.
"A land war had broken out in Torridon between the Campbells, the clan who held the castle at the time, and the Graphms, who controlled the region to the east." Eilean kept one eye on her customers as she spoke and patiently spelled out the Gaelic version of "Graphm" when Riley jotted down the names.
"The fighting was so bitter and so deadly that it nearly wiped out both clans."
Already the set pieces were starting to make sense. Gran had taught Riley that curses came from people, born out of their most extreme emotions-suffering, longing, desperation-feelings so raw, so heavy, that they poured out and drew consequences from the universe.
A blood feud made the perfect catalyst. All that burning hatred, the sheer magnitude of anguish from so many lost loved ones.
"The tale goes that when both clans' numbers had dwindled so far that it looked like the castle might soon belong to no one," Eilean said, her low, lilting voice weaving the story like a tapestry, "one desperate soul went into the mountains, seeking the fae that lived beyond the yew trees, determined to make a terrible deal."
Ah, the infamous Highland fae. Riley loved a good fairy tale, especially when they were real.
"But which side did the person come from?" By the sounds of it, a member from either clan would have enough they stood to win or lose.
"The name is lost to legend, I'm afraid." Eilean frowned. "Whoever it was, they made a bad bargain, because the last lines of both clans fell, and the castle lay dormant for years before a lieutenant from the Twenty-First Light Dragoons purchased the place in 1789."
The bartender paused to hold up the bottle of scotch from before.
With a smile, Riley tapped the bar next to the glass, accepting the offer of a refill.
"Whatever that sorry soul was promised by the fae remains unfulfilled"-Eilean delivered a generous pour-"and the curse persists as a consequence, driving any- and everyone away from that castle."
Copyright © 2023 by Rosie Danan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.